Voting concerns loom with election nearing

Elections director John Arntz is always nervous when election season looms, but in November he’s anticipating the largest voter turnout in San Francisco history — and those voters may be using new voting machines that still have not been certified by the state.

Sequoia Voting Systems, the maker of the machines San Francisco intends to use this November, submitted its ranked-choice systems to Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s office late this summer and testing of those systems is complete, according to Bowen spokeswoman Kate Folmar.

Following a public hearing on the test results Sept. 26, the earliest Bowen could certify the machines for use is Oct. 6 — the same day residents can begin casting early ballots at City Hall, Arntz said.

If Bowen takes any time with her decision, those early votes might not be made on machines.

“If the touch-screen machines aren’t certified, paper ballots will be here and voting will continue,” Arntz said. “But someone who required disabled-accessible equipment wouldn’t be able to vote.”

Advocates for the disabled have fought hard to provide the equal right to independent and private voting for disabled voters, according to Beth Berenson, vision-loss resource center specialist with Lighthouse for the Blind.

“It’s very important, with all the choices being made in this election, that our community participates,” Berenson said.

San Francisco signed a $12.6 million contract in December to purchase the new electronic voting machines from Oakland-based Sequoia. Last November, local ballots had to be hand counted after machines from The City’s previous vendor, Election Systems & Software, were not certified in time, which led to a $3.5 million lawsuit settlement between San Francisco and ES&S.

If Sequoia’s ranked-choice software is not approved, Bowen will allow San Francisco to use Sequoia machines to tally everything except the seven supervisorial races, according to Arntz.

In ranked-choice voting, rather than picking a single candidate for each seat, voters name their top three choices in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, a process of eliminating the lowest vote receivers begins and those votes are transferred to the remaining choices until a candidate passes the 50 percent benchmark.

Due to the complicated nature of ranked-choice tabulations, hand-counting ballots to determine the winners among 51 Board of Supervisors candidates in seven districts could take weeks. If that happens, Sequoia has agreed to pay for the hand count, Arntz said.

bwinegarner@sfexaminer.com

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